The Operating System Q & A pt 1

May 25, 2014 at 4:30 pm 2 comments

“A morphing, responsive organism which is in continuous conversation with the contemporary creative environment”: Part 1 of an interview with Lynne DeSilva-Johnson of The Operating System

1) In addition to the chapbooks and literary magazines that we sell at Book Culture, the Operating System also has an extensive web presence and hosts readings, exhibitions, and pedagogical events in the non-virtual world. To the extent that it’s possible to do so, can you give an idea of the current scope of the project known as the Operating System?


Yes – you could say that the OS’s most enduring, ongoing, tangible output is the wide variety of creative content always going up on our website, much of which falls into these series: Awesome Creators, Field Notes, RE:CONversations, and our annual Poetry Month Celebration (in which 30 creative practitioners contribute a personal account of a poet’s influence on their life and work every april, next year will be the 4th). Our web platform is also the place where our commitment to all creative disciplines (as well as to creative entrepreneurship and peer-to-peer/open source practice) is most visible.

We also “host” content for creative practitioners, events, and organizations – meaning that we understand our role as a communication platform, and try to encourage practitioners to better use the web to their advantage by posting (or re-posting) original content they want to drive traffic to on the OS rather than on (or solely on) their personal blogs or websites, which serve a different purpose and receive a different kind of attention. I’ll talk more about the type of sustainable creative practice “modelling” this represents later.

As you mention, we are always hosting and participating in community events, which include readings, workshops, salons, curated shows, roundtables, bookfairs and more, and partnering with various organizations to catalyze creative possibility. We just had a delightful, standing room only reading for our 2014 Chapbook Series at Pete’s Candy Store, and we’ll be hosting a reading at the NYC Poetry Festival in July, tabling and hosting a reading at Boog City in August, and have two collaborative curated exhibitions coming up in the fall. We’re actively engaged with the nascent US Department of Arts and Culture, a citizen artist organization housed at Bowery Arts and Science. I’m also working with the conceptual artist Beatrice Glow on various OS collaborations with her Floating Library project in September – to include a workshop on the ship, participant web content, and publication of an artists book/catalogue.

As all of our magazines are, in a way, our upcoming PRINT volume, SOUND , is really a conceptual piece about what it means to publish a magazine, and an exploration of the possibilities inherent in that form in this particular time, culture, and technological landscape. It explores a return to the origins of storytelling – aural and visual – using the page as a medium in which you see the practitioner through photography and can stream audio (via QR code and accompanying audio download), instead of for the traditional text. It’s a meditation, in a way, as well, on how identity is erased via our standards of printed practice – a volume that seeks potential escape from that, exploring potentialities presented by the omnipresence of media technologies, while still loving and producing book-form.

There’s more to say on PRINT too – in addition to SOUND and the Floating Library catalogue, there’s a few plays on their way to publication, an artist’s chapbook series in the bullpen, and in general an upward and outward swing where our press is concerned. It’s seen as a pedagogical self-publishing platform, in a way – a place where creative practitioners are encouraged to consider documentation through printed matter as a critical entry into their own history, as well as a way of countering and archiving what too often becomes a purely born-digital practice, guided by us in:re design, editing, printing, and distribution.

But really, these are all just examples of a how a conceptual experiment happens to be reifying itself at this particular time. To get a better sense of the OS’s true scope, the next question is where it’s at.


2) On your website, you define the Operating System as an “ongoing experiment in resilient creative practice which necessarily morphs as its conditions and collaborators change.” Some of the traces of that ongoing transformation are visible in your publications. For example, each remaining copy of your publication Exit Strata is stamped with a notification that says, “Exit Strata is now The Operating System,” while the title page of the OS’s new publication, announces “exit strata est mort, vive exit strata.” Why is it important for you to foreground the transformative quality of the project? Say a little bit about the ways in which the organisation has changed over time.


The Operating System enjoys a certain amount of  intentional humor in representing itself via title as a fixed entity – something humans have a tendency to do, as well. The Operating System is about as fixed as you or I – it was Exit Strata, and now it’s not. I used to groan and say that I wasn’t a morning person, but now I wake up at 6 am naturally without an alarm, and it’s my favorite time of day. See where I’m going with this?

We’ve had some positive (if challenging) changes in personnel which necessitated the shift of title but this potential roadblock ultimately allowed us to entirely reboot the system from the ground up, and take stock of where we’d been and where we were going. The nod to Ionesco (Le roi est mort, vive le roi) is both a reference to his absurdity and our own: we’ve died but are very much alive, in fact we’re stronger than ever. It’s really all just how you look at it.

It’s important for us to be ok with the ways in which we remake ourselves, with the fact that both as individuals and organizations we try and try again to figure what exactly we “are” out – and that to be our best selves we may need to constantly shift how we’re going to go about our lives and our work. We’re adaptive organisms, as are the organizations and alliances we create. Sometimes the conditions we set are optimal, and allow for growth, sometimes we need to cut back, re-pot, and move ourselves to a better light source. There’s no shame in it, it’s the most natural thing in the world.

We hope that by being transparent in our own transformative growth, others will do the same – that we’ll move as a creative community away from the shame of failure and towards an acceptance of its positive properties in making us increasingly resilient. The more we share our processes of growth and learning experiences, the more others can do the same – and learn from our mistakes. If you see all our time and money and energy as shared community currency, you start to see that it’s in all of our best interest to share our best practices (and foibles) in the interest of saving others from wasting time, money, and energy – that could better serve ALL of us in other ways.

Defining the OS as an “ongoing experiment in resilient creative practice” is really the best summation of intentions for the organization I’ve found yet – whereas many businesses and organizations may be founded around a personal goal of an individual or a vision to produce a particular product, this “System” is intentionally fuzzy in its boundaries: the OS is, instead, a morphing, responsive organism which is in continuous conversation with the contemporary creative environment – and the challenges creators face therein.

What that means is that I’m constantly scanning creative individuals and organizations for signs of struggle, lack, need, challenge – resources people are looking for, confusion regarding sustainable practices, our ongoing love-hate relationship with technology, et cetera — and finding spaces of conversation and resolution.

What form this takes is a direct response to the particular question at hand. But ultimately it’s pedagogical: these are questions and problems that I share with all creative people and folks running or seeking to run an arts organization, as an artist/writer/creative individual, and someone running an arts organization. I have no desire to position myself as an expert — rather, I see us as allies in a mutual struggle wherein my longtime experience designing writing curriculum/teaching/working in business/being a tech geek gives me certain advantages that I’m putting to use here.

I love books and book design, and I enjoy much of what I read on the internet, but I was never driven by the desire to start another press or another website – when there’s already clearly an oversaturation of input for most audiences.

What distinguishes our publications – and the use of our online platform as a publishing forum – is that they are seen as, ultimately, a space of learning. The way in which we publish and work with our contributors is very much a “teach a man to fish” process (as I touched on above), intended to model the use of documentation/storytelling as a resilient practice for creative people across the disciplinary spectrum.

There’s a commitment to transparency that also engages participants in all of our projects in a frank conversation about resources, ours and theirs. I’m constantly pushing the envelope in interviews to address the question of currency in all its forms, and to encourage organizations and individuals to “open source” our process learning about sustainable economic practices with each other. But I’ll talk more about that below.


3) To continue with the theme of transformations, I’m interested in the changing aesthetic of your Print Document chapbook series. The chapbooks in Series 1 partake much more of the hand-made aesthetic that’s often associated with chapbooks: they’re staple-bound, with covers made of textured paper bearing woodblock prints by Kevin William Reed . The titles in Series 2, however, are perfect bound with glossy covers. But even as you leave the hand-made aesthetic behind, you allude to that change by titling Series 2 “BY HAND,” and using pictures of the authors’ hands as cover images. Was the decision to leave behind the stapled, hand-made chapbook aesthetic a comment on the current state of micropress publishing, was it another statement of the changing identity of the OS, or both?


If someone was to ask me what the aesthetic of the Operating System “is” I would say that, like the organization itself, the aesthetic is a shifting one, responsive to each project and its participants, as well as the intended environment for its receipt/delivery. On the other hand, I take the creation of a branded identity very seriously, and there is consistency in all our print publications in terms of page design, dimensions, font families, and so on.

Perhaps it’s important to clarify that where both the magazine and the chapbooks are concerned, what might be perceived as a shift away from “fine” or “handmade” craft is not, in fact, a permanent one, or really a “shift” at all: it’s better understood as an addition of forms to our output. I don’t privilege one approach over the other anymore than I think one should use the same language in every context or wear the same outfit to every event: what aesthetic is chosen is partially a situational one, based on intended audience and/or collaborators on a particular project (for instance, Reed’s engagement as a printmaker on PRINT: DOCUMENT Series 1) – but can also be a practical one, when and if resources are scarce.

You and I have spoken, Michael, about the (perhaps?) shifting definition of a “chapbook,” a conversation I seem to be having more and more of late, as various advances in publishing technology and personal access to technologies that allow for the production of a series like ours for (lets put it right out there) far less cost than I’ve spent making something by hand in the past.

Readers might be noticing that I am not particularly interested in definitions that hold our creative potentialities back, and this one is no different: a chapbook to me is a often a first book, or a small book – a cohesive, short project that stands alone handsomely as a brief, unique volume. Whether it’s made on your own, handwritten, stapled or glued or sewn or letterpressed or screenprinted or printed at kinkos or using a publisher – who cares? It’s hard enough to be a creator without being disparaging of others’ choices or wasting time arguing definitions and semantics.

I would encourage every writer or poet to practice conceiving of and organizing their own books, and certainly to try their hand at producing their own, if that prospect excites or inspires. It’s important to understand the various delivery systems via which your work may potentially reach an audience, and I feel strongly that it’s in all of our best interest if writers educate ourselves on the design languages at play in publishing and printing books and magazines. However, many people feel overwhelmed by the notion of book design – are not skilled or trained in these ways, and aren’t particularly interested in learning this at the level that they feel self-publishing requires. For this reason, our first PRINT: DOCUMENT series began with an intensive, all-day Design Charrette in which all poets participated, a model we’re working on replicating for various organizations and future publications.

To answer your other question within a question, though, about whether the design decisions for the BY HAND series were a commentary on the current state of micropress publishing, the answer is a (conditional, but still hearty) yes. As a publisher and in keeping with the pedagogic, community-dialogue-catalyst intentions of The Operating System – there was most certainly the intention to speak directly to the slicker, technologically driven way that this series was produced while including the not-so-subtle reminder on each cover of the hand (and handwriting) of the poet whose words were inside. I’m interested in expanding our aesthetic relationship to “real” or “pure” artistic practice; when we privilege handmade books over machine-printed books, for instance, we’re forgetting the very human relationships that took place at many stages of the second process, as well.

These covers are also representative of a larger question that from the outset has appeared in all our print volumes as to the ways in which photography and other modes of recording (sound and video) return us to the human, oral/aural, visual experience at storytelling’s origins – and the ways that new media is expanding our relationship with the physical page through potential interface with digital technologies. Just scratching the surface of these possibilities, we’ve included QR codes to video, audio, and other online content in every PRINT volume to date – a very clunky, perhaps questionably aesthetically pleasing choice to be sure – but more than anything one that should be understood as a nod to our commitment to the future potentialities that have yet to fully emerge.

I’m also interested in reminding the reader of the very real, very personal relationship we have with our printer, Spencer Printing, in Honesdale PA, where we try to personally pick up each order, and talk to the various craftspeople who operate their print machines, both old and new. I’m thrilled to support a small, family run business who does a beautiful job on our books practicing their craft well. I have no need to own every part of the process. It’s exciting to collaborate with them, too – they’re very knowledgable and because of their scale of operation have many processes available to them that they in turn make available to us. This is true with many micropresses – the printing houses we work with are craftspeople in their own right: hands are cutting and gluing and packing these books. I love reciprocation and believe very much in functional division of labor and distribution of resources: if we can support a small business who can more easily and with wonderful, professional equipment make beautiful books for us at a lower cost than we could do with our own two hands at staples, why the hell would I not do that?

Sometimes, to be frank, there’s a real snobbishness, an elitism around the preference for one form over another. Which is boring, really, not to mention problematic in:re the class issues that underlie those preferences as well as hurtful to our supposed end goal: the creation of more beautiful things, the distribution of art and writing, the support of creative people, right? (…right?) Of course what one could see as “elitism” is most likely based around deep fears regarding identity and knowledge – requiring support, encouragement and open dialogue – this isn’t meant as a dig at anyone, just a hope that we all take a deep breath and try to see the usefulness and beauty in more ways than we’ve been taught/accustomed to understanding at first flush.


“I am a conduit for universal energy”: Tune in next week for Part 2, in which the OS meditates on art, entrepreneurship, and collaborative openness.


Entry filed under: Book Talk, Chapbooks and Small Presses, Featured Products, Inventory News, Q & A. Tags: , , , , , , , .

The Moth Short Story Prize Our Very Own Natalie Smith Peforms at Rockwood Music Hall on June 23

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Pamela Laskin  |  May 27, 2014 at 3:24 pm


    You amaze me. I found this fascinating!

  • 2. The Operating System Q & A pt 2 | Book Culture Blog  |  June 2, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    […] Check out Part One of the interview here: “A morphing, responsive organism which is in continuous conversation with the contemporary c… […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Book Culture is an independent community bookstore with two locations in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City on 112th street and 114th street and Broadway. Visit us online at

People Like Us!

"The Upper West Side's literary standard"
- Gothamist

"Simply beautiful."
- Not For Tourists

Book Culture



%d bloggers like this: